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Carving up moral motivation in ancient Chinese and Greek thought

Applicant Machek David
Number 179994
Funding scheme Ambizione
Research institution Institut für Philosophie Universität Bern
Institution of higher education University of Berne - BE
Main discipline Philosophy
Start/End 01.01.2019 - 31.12.2022
Approved amount 593'028.00
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Keywords (5)

motivation; Greek; ethics; philosophy; Chinese

Lay Summary (German)

Wenn wir über Selbstbeherrschung oder Willensschwäche reden, dann setzen wir meistens voraus, dass unsere Handlung von zwei verschiedenen Motivationsquellen angetrieben wird. Diese Motivationsquellen können dann, wie die Begriffe der “Selbstbeherrschung” und “Willensschwäche” nahelegen, im Einklang sein oder im Widerspruch stehen.
Lay summary

Inhalt und Ziel des Forschungsprojekts 

Im abendländischen Kulturkontext wird die moralische Motivation in zwei Hauptquellen aufgeteilt: einerseits Vernunft oder Wille, andererseits vernunftlose oder vernunftwidrige Lust oder Emotionen. Diese Einteilung stammt von der altgriechischen, insbesondere von Platon und Aristoteles vertretenen Auffassung, dass unsere Psyche zwei Teile hat, einen vernünftigen und einen vernunftslosen. Wer gut leben will, muss das vernunftlose Element unbedingt in Einklang mit der Vernunft bringen. Das Ziel dieses Projekts ist es, diese Auffassung von moralischer Motivation mit der klassisch altchinesischen Konzeption zu vergleichen. Auch die altchinesischen Denker reden über Selbstbeherrschung oder Willensschwäche; die Unterscheidung zwischen Vernunft und Vernunftslosem kommt jedoch nicht vor.  Das legt die Frage nahe, ob sie eine alternative Unterscheidung erarbeitet haben, die uns neue Perspektiven auf das Phänomen des Motivationskonfliktes eröffnen könnte.


Wissenschaftlicher und gesellschaftlicher Kontext

Obwohl dem chinesischen Denken in der abendländischen philosophischen Forschung immer mehr Aufmerksamkeit gewidmet wird, steht eine systematische Erforschung des Phänomens des Motivationskonfliktes bisher aus. Das vorliegende Projekt soll diese Lücke schliessen oder zumindest verringern. 

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 12.11.2018

Responsible applicant and co-applicants



Aristotle on How Pleasure Perfects Activity (Nicomachean Ethics x.5 1175a29-b14): The Optimising-View
Machek David (2020), Aristotle on How Pleasure Perfects Activity (Nicomachean Ethics x.5 1175a29-b14): The Optimising-View, in Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, 0(0), 1-20.
Two Stoic Accounts of Conflict between Reason and Passion
Machek David (2020), Two Stoic Accounts of Conflict between Reason and Passion, in Ancient Philosophy, 40(2), 389-409.
Aristotle on Enkratic Ignorance
, Aristotle on Enkratic Ignorance, in Journal of the History of Philosophy, 58(4), 655-678.
Mengzi on Nourishing the Heart By Having Few Desires
, Mengzi on Nourishing the Heart By Having Few Desires, in Philosophy East and West, 1-22.


This is a project about human motivation, and more particularly, about what could be called “moral” motivation, i.e. motivation that can be assessed in terms of ethical or moral value because it inclines us to act either well, badly or neutrally. Thinkers of Chinese and Greek antiquity were deeply interested in how moral motivation works, and were acutely aware of the fact that the human self comprises of a plurality of motivational sources that very often conflict with each other. So, for example, our motivation for pursuing excessive bodily pleasures is often at odds with our motivation for what we think is good for us. On the most general level, the aim of this project is to improve our understanding of how exactly individual thinkers in both traditions distinguished between different motivational sources, and how they envisaged the human potential to develop a character that is free from the conflict among them. What makes this project unique is its methodological approach and interdisciplinary dimension. It has the ambition to show that addressing the theme of moral motivation from the perspective of two different philosophical traditions can not only tell us something about similarities and differences between the two traditions at large, but also to yield fresh insight into the individual Chinese and Greek texts in their own cultural and historical context. In so doing, it aims to make comparative philosophy relevant also to specialists working not only on Chinese, but also on Greek thought, who would otherwise be little interested in comparative philosophy. There is a strong rationale for testing this approach on the theme of moral motivation and motivational conflict. While it has been widely acknowledged that this theme was much discussed in Greek philosophy, it has been little noted that some considerably systematic views about the structure of human motivation were developed in early Chinese thought as well. This neglect cannot be explained simply by a general neglect of Chinese philosophy, for study of Chinese philosophy has flourished in recent years. It has been rather the predominant view in the field that early Chinese thinkers lacked the dichotomy between reason and emotions, as we know it from the Greek philosophy, that has inhibited an exploration of how the early Chinese thinkers structured the human motivation. But it does not follow from the absence of this dichotomy in the early Chinese texts that these texts did not develop other, alternative distinctions that would enable them to differentiate between sources of motivation. A systematic exploration of these distinctions, and their role in ethical theories, is bound to fill a significant gap in our understanding of early Chinese philosophical texts. Overall, the impact of this project on our understanding of ancient texts will be bigger in scope on the Chinese than on the Greek side. This disproportion is compelled by the fact that the scholarship on the Greek philosophy is more advanced than the scholarship on the Chinese philosophy. To make a significant impact, the research outputs on Greek philosophy have to be more fine-grained and limited in scope. For this reason, I choose to use the comparative perspective to develop a new reading of some aspects of Aristotle's moral psychology. The prospected research output divides into four parts. Firstly, I intend to write an article with methodological manifesto about the significance of comparative philosophy for improving our understanding of what we compare. Second, I plan to write a series of three articles based on a comparison of Aristotle (4th century B.C.E.) with Confucian philosopher Xunzi (3rd century B.C.E). Each of these articles impacts the state-of-art in the Xunzian or Aristotelian scholarship. Thirdly, I plan to organize an interdisciplinary symposium focusing on the motivational role of bodily desires in both philosophical traditions. Finally, I envisage a first systematic, book-length treatment of how the views about moral motivation developed in the course of Warring States thought (4th - 2nd century B.C.E), with main (but not exclusive) focus on three texts that developed the most systematic treatments of this theme: Confucian text Mengzi, Daoist text Zhuangzi, and Confucian text Xunzi.